News analysis

Myanmar key to India's development of north-east region

Among the select group at Myanmar's National Ceasefire Accord ceremony in Naypyitaw on Oct 15 was a nondescript man named Ajit Doval, who signed as an international witness to the agreement.

But Mr Doval is no ordinary bureaucrat. As national security adviser, he is India's security czar. The Indian media calls him a "super spy".

That Delhi sent such a special envoy for the job - and that he was accompanied by a high-level delegation from India's north-east - indicates how significant the relationship with Myanmar is to the future of north-east India, where complex security issues come into play.

New Delhi has been battling insurgencies in the north-east for decades and, in some cases, militants have found refuge across international borders, including in Myanmar.

Mr Doval has a reputation in the north-east. In August, he pulled off a coup by negotiating a peace agreement with a major faction of the armed insurgent group Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).

But a separate NSCN faction, led by the ageing S. S. Khaplang, ambushed and killed 18 Indian soldiers in June. That triggered a cross-border reprisal raid on a militant camp in Myanmar by Indian troops. Mr Khaplang himself is said to be in Myanmar.

Ideally, India, as have Bhutan and Bangladesh, would prefer Naypyitaw to crack down on militants using Myanmar territory. But Myanmar's army is also dealing with bigger issues - like tension and conflict with Kokang, Shan, and Kachin armed groups.

"While the NSCN's Greater Nagaland demand is not acceptable to either India or Myanmar, the Naga issue is a big one for India but a small one for Myanmar," a Myanmar analyst familiar with the government's thinking told The Straits Times.

The bilateral relationship has had its ups and downs. India's first prime minister, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, saved U Nu, the first prime minister of what was then called Burma, with an arms shipment, when his nation's army was battling Karen rebels on the outskirts of Yangon in 1949. But India was cold to the military regime of the late dictator Ne Win.

Today, relations have warmed again , with several high-level mutual visits. Recently, Myanmar's powerful armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing visited the Taj Mahal.

Yet India must remain mindful of sensitivities in Myanmar, the Yangon-based analyst said in a phone interview. "Myanmar feels it is sandwiched between two giants - India and China - and needs to be cautious," he said. "And both India and China need to be patient as well. Myanmar is trying to feel its way in the neighbourhood in a new setting. It is not black and white any more."

New Delhi now sees development in Myanmar as the key to its land-locked north-east, which needs routes to the Bay of Bengal other than the Brahmaputra Valley on the Indian side of Bangladesh.

India's US$450 million (S$630 million) Kaladan transport project, linking its north-east to Sittwe on Myanmar Bay of Bengal coast; a trilateral highway which will link Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand; and the development money it is pumping into Chin and Naga areas on the Myanmar side, will eventually open up more options for north-east India. India has also trained over 200 first-time Myanmar MPs in parliamentary democracy.

"As Myanmar develops, the north-east will develop. As there is more growth, that will cut the ground from under the insurgents," a senior Indian official told The Straits Times.

Stability in Myanmar is critical, however. "You need stability, then the Kaladan and other projects will succeed," says Mr Giriraj Bhattacharjee, a researcher specialising in the north-east, at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.

Mr Doval's presence in Naypyitaw was a sign of the new cooperation at both the strategic and military levels, he said.

As the Indian official who spoke to The Straits Times noted: "From our point of view, the opening for the north-east is South-east Asia. And South-east Asia begins in north-east India."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Myanmar key to India's development of north-east region'. Print Edition | Subscribe